Past Is Prologue: Oregon Murals Provide a “Teachable Moment”

Library Mural

Library Mural
“Development of Science”
Photo Credit: Howard Davis

Just as the controversy over the Victor Arnautoff murals in San Francisco’s George Washington High School draws national and even international attention, New Deal era murals in the University of Oregon’s main library stir debate over public art, representations of gender and race, and conditions for an inclusive campus environment. The future of the Knight Library murals, however, was decided in a much different way, with a much different conclusion–and offers a model for engagement with challenging public art.

The controversy surrounding the Knight Library murals began several years ago as students launched successive protests over three murals installed as part of the 1937 New Deal-era library’s east and west stairwells. The focus was on the WPA artists Arthur and Albert Runquist’s pictorial murals “The Development of Science” and “The Development of Art.” The Runquist brothers, graduates of the University of Oregon, shipyard workers and regionally known artists, were associated with progressive politics. Today’s critical analysis, however, draws attention to their selective narrative. As shown in “The Development of Science,” progress is suggested by a tree portraying eight vignettes from the early human discovery of fire and agriculture to science in the early 20th century. Its emphasis on Western civilization and a limited representation based on gender and race normalizes forms of privilege that university values presumably should challenge. Certainly, twenty-first century UO students have.

Mural, "The Mission of a University"

Mural, "The Mission of a University"
The words “our racial heritage” were defaced with red ink.
Photo Credit: Howard Davis

The mural that draws the greatest fire, however, is titled “The Mission of a University,” inscribed on the wall as if it were a medieval manuscript. The text borrows from a 1909 speech by UO Sociology professor Frederick Young in which he argues the service required of a university, contending: “From now on it must be a climb if our nation is to hold its position among the nations of the Earth. It means conservation and betterment not merely of our national resources but also of our racial heritage and of opportunity to the lowliest.”

A student petition, filed in November 2017, called for the University to remove it—mobilizing over 1,750 students in the process.  During the summer of 2018, the mural was defaced. A protestor highlighted the phrase racial heritage” with red paint and left a taunting note: “Which art do you choose to conserve now?”  

The library administration’s response was to clean the mural, send the note to be archived as part of the campus’ history of protest, and to place a placard next to the mural acknowledging the defacement, yet calling for “continuing our cross-campus project to contextualize these artifacts for educational and cultural reasons, and for allowing them to remain uncensored as evidence of the embedded racist and sexist legacy against which many of us still struggle.”

Librarian’s Response

Librarian’s Response
Placard addressing vandalism of the Knight Library Mural
Photo Credit: Judith Kenny

Education rather than erasure has been the consistent response from the administration. This might, in part, be understood as an aspect of its conservation responsibilities for a building with historic preservation requirements. Completed in 1937, the Knight Library was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. It exemplifies the quality of public building that could be produced through the financing of the New Deal’s PWA and WPA programs and the creativity inspired by the WPA Federal Arts Program. Because the murals are embedded in the library’s walls, removal would likely destroy them. But the conservation of a building, as the placard cited, is less an issue than is the uncensored evidence of an “embedded racist and sexist legacy.”

Even as protests took place, in February 2017, Adrienne Lim, Dean of Libraries, launched the Knight Library Public Art Task Force, charged with several tasks. Just last month, it submitted its report to the University Senate.

Knight Library

Knight Library
University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon
Photo Credit: Howard Davis

The first task was to set up a committee of library faculty members to work on a guide to the library’s historic resources. The second, overseen by a committee of students and faculty members, involved conducting a public forum, “Public Art, Cultural Memory, and Anti-Racism” to explore public art as an artifact representing past and contemporary values. The third task undertook a juried exhibit of student art that reflected contemporary values, titled “Show Up, Stand Out, Empower!”

A public forum, “Public Art, Cultural Memory and Anti-racism,” discussed the implications of removing the “The Mission of the University” mural.  Professor Laura Pulido, Head of the Department of Ethnic Studies, argued against removal, “I understand that many want to tear down racist symbols of the past for reasons I respect. But I am opposed to such erasures,” she said, adding, “The only way to move forward to not be held hostage to our past is to engage the past.”

Democratizing Beauty

Berkeley, California Rose Garden

Berkeley, California Rose Garden
The garden, featuring 1,500 varieties of roses, was one of the first of the New Deal’s Civil Works Progress projects. Conceived in 1933, it was dedicated for public use in 1937.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

I had to think hard when a reporter recently asked me what most surprised me about what I’ve learned about the New Deal. After a pause, I replied “The importance of aesthetics.” My response was primed by the first sentence of a list of goals set forth by the National Resources Planning Board [NPRB] for what the Roosevelt Administration sought to achieve after the war:

“The fullest possible development of the human personality, in relation to the common good, in a framework of freedoms and rights, of justice, liberty, equality, and the consent of the governed.”

I marveled at how alien such a high and holistic aspiration seemed not only in the present but in all the administrations of my lifetime. It was especially so in light of the time it was written— January, 1943 at the nadir of the Second World War when Americans were still under food rationing. But, in fact, it succinctly summarizes much of what the New Deal set out to accomplish.

Central Court, Main Library, Toledo, Ohio

Central Court, Main Library, Toledo, Ohio
This public library was constructed in 1939 with the aid of Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). A multi-color glass mosaic crowns the lobby.
Photo Credit: Evan Kalish

Although Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had all of the advantages that inherited wealth and status gave them—spending three months on the Grand Tour of Europe for their honeymoon, for example—they both came to believe that access to beauty should not be the exclusive prerogative of their own class. In 1941, in his dedication of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., President Roosevelt declared that great works of art such as those in the Gallery belong to all men everywhere, but that the government furthermore had a duty to create new art and take it to where there had been none before.

The WPA’s Federal Music, Theatre, Writing, and Art Projects and the Treasury Section of Fine Arts did just that, so that Roosevelt could deftly leap in his speech from Andrew Mellon’s gift of Old Masters in the Gallery to what FDR felt all Americans were entitled to: “Recently… they have seen in their own towns, in their own villages and schoolhouses and post offices, in the backrooms of shops and stores, pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors, people they’ve known and lived beside and talked to.” Both FDR and Eleanor believed that access to beauty was essential for “the full development of the human personality” not only for healthy individuals, but also for a healthy democracy. Even in the absence—or obverse—of such goals at the federal level today, New Deal projects such as Central Park’s Conservatory Gardens, Mt Hood’s Timberline Lodge, and Denver’s Red Rock Amphitheatre have enabled millions to nourish their spirits just as the NPRB hoped they would in the midst of war.

 

Sunshine School for Crippled Children, San Francisco
The richly detailed interior and exterior of the school, built in 1937, was meant to provide a cheerful atmosphere for the disabled children.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Sculptor Wheeler Williams created this relief for the Canal Street Station Post Office in Manhattan in 1938.

Indian Bowman
Sculptor Wheeler Williams created this relief for the Canal Street Station Post Office in Manhattan in 1938.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

From FDR’s speech at the National Gallery dedication:

“Great works of art belong to all men everywhere. Art was foreign to Americans, they were taught. Recently, they have discovered that they have a part. They have seen their own towns, in their own villages and schoolhouses and Post Offices, in the backrooms of shops and stores, pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors, people they’ve known and lived beside and talked to. They have seen across these last few years rooms full of painting and sculptures by Americans. Walls covered with the paintings by Americans. Some of it good, some of it not so good. But all of it native and human and eager and alive; all of it painted by their own kind in this country. And painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.” 

Dedicated in conviction that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on too.

The “Life of Washington” Murals Explained

Click on the images below to enlarge.

 

Victor Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Arnautoff at work at GW High School, Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Victor Arnautoff was one of the most prolific artists of the New Deal. Born in Russia in 1896, he served as a Calvary officer in WWI, and later in one of the White armies during the Russian Civil War. He arrived in San Francisco in 1925 to study art. When his student visa expired, he spent two years in Mexico as an assistant to the muralist Diego Rivera. In 1931, Arnautoff and his family returned to San Francisco, where he began to produce buon fresco murals, a technique in which the artist paints on wet plaster. The paint penetrates and becomes part of the wall, making frescoes very difficult to move.

Working for the WPA in 1936, Arnautoff created thirteen fresco murals at George Washington High School. Entitled the “Life of Washington,” the murals cover 1,600 square feet of the walls and ceilings of the school’s entry and main hallway. Arnautoff did extensive research for the murals. He wrote in his memoirs that he wanted to show two things: the life of George Washington and what he called the “spirit of his times.”  He also said, “The artist must be a critic of his society.” Arnautoff, who would soon join the Communist Party, called himself a social realist. He thought his paintings should show realistic people rather than abstract imagery, and felt an obligation to be a social critic.

Mural series, “Life of Washington”
Photo: Richard Evans

The first mural chronologically in Washington’s life is divided by an image of a tree.

Photo: Robert Cherny

On one side of this mural Arnautoff portrays Washington’s early life, including as a surveyor. On the other side he shows the French and Indian War, Washington’s first military experience. 

French Indian War
Photo: Richard Evans

Instead of placing Washington in the middle of this scene, Arnautoff put American Indians in the center, surrounded on all sides by the British, the French, and the American colonials. 

Raising the Flag
Photo: Richard Evans

Here Arnautoff depicted the origins of the American Revolution—the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, the burning of the tax stamps. Again, Arnautoff did not put Washington in the center. Washington is in the upper right, arriving to take command of the army. In the middle, Arnautoff painted several working-class men raising the new flag.

Men in Rags Valley Forge
Photo: Robert Cherny

This mural depicts the first winter at Valley Forge. The usual depiction of this event is a portrait of Washington praying in the snow. Arnautoff did something quite different. He shows Washington and three members of the Continental Congress warmly dressed in winter clothing and the enlisted men dressed in rags, their feet wrapped in bandages. Washington is pointing out the poor condition of his troops as a way of persuading Congress to give him more financial support. To me, this is Arnautoff’s social commentary on class privilege at the time of the American Revolution.

Mercenary Surrender
Photo: Robert Cherny

Arnautoff’s sketches for the mural suggest that this is a Hessian mercenary surrendering at Yorktown. Washington is absent from this mural. It is enlisted troops doing their duty.

Bidding Farewell Officer
Photo: Robert Cherny

This mural shows Washington at the end of the Revolutionary War bidding farewell to his officers, including Lafayette and Von Steuben, perhaps Arnautoff’s way of emphasizing that the American revolutionaries needed assistance from abroad to win their war of independence.

Washington with Hamilton and Jefferson
Photo: Robert Cherny

Opposite that mural, Arnautoff depicted Washington as president, mediating between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the new Constitution.

Alcove Banner
Photo: Robert Cherny

At the entrance to that alcove, Arnautoff put this banner with a quotation from Washington about the importance of educational institutions.

Washington with Mother
Photo: Robert Cherny

In the final alcove, Arnautoff presented two more scenes related to Washington’s presidency. This one shows him bidding farewell to his dying mother. By some accounts, Washington was reluctant to leave her, but she encouraged him to go because of the importance of the work facing him as the first president.

Washington with Children
Photo: Robert Cherny

Arnautoff learned through his research that Washington had tried to create a national university. 

Mount Vernon
Photo: Richard Evans

Now controversial, this mural shows Washington at his Mount Vernon plantation. Once again, Washington is on the margins. Arnautoff put enslaved African Americans at in the center of this mural. This was his comment on the fact— all too often ignored in the 1930s—that the same men who signed the Declaration of Independence, declaring “all men are created equal,” owned other people as property. For Arnautoff this was one of the great contradictions of Washington’s time, and he makes clear in this mural that Washington was dependent on enslaved labor for his wealth. Arnautoff was clearly using his art to provide social criticism.

Pioneer Mural
Photo: Richard Evans

Arnautoff said that, in his research for the mural, he looked for ways to connect Washington to the West. This would have been difficult because at the time the nation ended at the Mississippi River. But he found a reference to Washington making a statement about the significance of the West.

Arnautoff divided this now-controversial mural into three separate stories.   Washington is on the left side, pointing west. In the center, Arnautoff’s social criticism is seen in what the artist called “the march of the white race from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” Arnautoff’s murals are all painted in color, but these westward marching pioneers are shown in a ghastly grey scale—a technique he learned from Diego Rivera. Arnautoff’s pioneers are marching past a dead Indian warrior, his commentary on the settlement of the West.

The third story in this mural is on the right, where a white man and an American Indian chief are sitting down together with a peace pipe. Over their heads, however, is a broken branch, apparently Arnautoff’s way of depicting broken promises and treaties.

For Arnautoff, the “spirit of the times” of early American history involved its greatest injustices: slavery and the killing and dispossession of America’s First People.  

Liberty Ceiling Mural
Photo: Robert Cherny

On the ceiling of the first alcove, Arnautoff placed the moon, a symbol of war, and above the second, a sun and rainbow, symbols for peace. On the ceiling of the third alcove is Liberty putting thirteen new stars onto a blue field. 

Eat at Jo’s

Jo’s Café. A popular addition to Monterey County’s New Deal Courthouse building

Jo’s Café
A popular addition to Monterey County’s New Deal Courthouse building
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

In the 1930s, the WPA constructed civic buildings that still hold a significant place in history. More than 80 years later, many are still in use, but many have fallen into disrepair or are out of compliance with today’s building codes. So it is especially gratifying when a New Deal building is restored and retained as a public asset rather than destroyed or sold to private developers. The Monterey County Courthouse in Salinas, California, is one to celebrate.

Architect Robert Stanton (1900–1983) designed the unique, 3-story International Moderne-style building, which was dedicated upon its completion in 1937. He turned to artist Joseph Jacinto (Jo) Mora (1876–1947), to add decorative elements to the building’s exterior and interior courtyard. With funding from the Federal Art Project, Mora’s bas-relief panels, column caps, and figurative heads of archetypical and historical figures around the building remain a source of civic pride. The courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

Monterey County Courthouse building, Salinas, California

Monterey County Courthouse building, Salinas, California
Funded by the WPA and a local bond, the courthouse opened 1937.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Visionary and artful, architect Stanton incorporated earthquake-resistant features in the courthouse. To keep the wheels of justice turning, Stanton’s plans called for the WPA courthouse to be built around its outgrown predecessor, which continued to operate while the new courthouse was under construction.

The need for additional courtrooms prompted the construction of an adjacent court building in 2010 and the WPA courthouse was vacated. That’s when the asbestos and lead paint were discovered there.

Fortunately, the County chose to update, rather than abandon its historic courthouse. The Board of Supervisors saw fit to allocate the funds needed for the complex renovation. The remediated building opened in 2018. It houses the offices of the District Attorney, Civil Grand Jury, and the County Law Library, with more new offices planned. A snack shop–Jo’s Café—named in honor Jo Mora, is a welcome addition.

More Mora
Dozens of sculptures and bas reliefs embellish the former courthouse
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Opening Day Poster. Monterey County Courthouse dedication.

Opening Day
Monterey County Courthouse dedication
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

The café displays copies of some of Mora’s artworks. Two large murals, “Serving the Feast” and “Welcome to The Fable” are reproduced in the hallway. Lobby displays illuminate the building’s history and Mora’s contributions.

In June, the Living New Deal and Jo Mora Trust will co-sponsor an exhibit, “Jo Mora: From the Old West to the New Deal,” at San Francisco’s Canessa Gallery. Presentations about Mora’s life and work will take place on opening night, June 7, and closing night, June 27. Sales of the artworks will benefit the two nonprofits.

 

Wisconsin Post Office Mural Guidebook, by David W. Gates, Jr.

As a through hiker on the Appalachian Trail some years back, David Gates would stop to pick up the supplies he had mailed to himself at the tiny post offices along the route that were his lifeline during his 6-month, 2,176-mile trek through 14 states. He’s been photographing and writing about post offices ever since.

After penning hundreds of stories for his blog, Gates has published a book about post office murals in Wisconsin commissioned during the New Deal.

Many of the nation’s post offices were constructed between 1934 and 1943 to provide jobs for unemployed workers. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture—later renamed the Section of Fine Arts—held competitions for artists to decorate these and other federal buildings. Many post offices in small towns got murals from the Treasury Relief Art Project. These post office murals often depicted the history, character, and industry of the towns where they were installed.

According to the U.S. Postal Service’s website, the Postal Service is making every effort to preserve this “uniquely American art…and safeguard it for future generations.” But, in fact, the Postal Service is selling off hundreds of historic post offices, many with New Deal artworks. David has been trying to photograph them before they disappear from public view.

The Wisconsin Post Office Mural Guidebook offers the traveler the locations of post offices where the public still has access to the murals (all of which were created with public funds), as well as information about those that have been removed or closed to public view.

The guidebook contains 70 color photographs, the location, and status of these endangered assets. Because many post office murals were not signed, often USPS clerks themselves don’t know the names of the artists or titles of the murals where they work. Gates’ book—soon to be followed by another that explores the subject more deeply—will open their and others’ eyes to an overlooked public treasure.

A New Deal Muralist’s Work Lives On

WPA Aquatic Park Bathhouse, Opening Day, January 22,1936

WPA Aquatic Park Bathhouse
Opening Day at the Aquatic Park Bathhouse, January 22,1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Denied admission to art colleges, Hilaire Hiler left Rhode Island for Paris in 1919 where he opened a legendary nightclub. At the Jockey Club, the first after-hours club in the Montparnasse District, Hiler painted the walls with colorful murals, and famously sang and played jazz piano with a monkey perched on his shoulder. The club proved wildly successful. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray were among the artists and writers on the Paris scene in the 1920s who frequented Hiler’s club and became his friends.

Section of Hiler’s Lobby Mural, Maritime Museum, Aquatic Park

Section of Hiler’s Lobby Mural
Mural by Hilaire Hiler,  Aquatic Park, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

 

Anais Nin introduced Hiler to Otto Rank, a close colleague of Sigmund Freud. Hiler attended classes at Rank’s Institute of Psychoanalysis–an adjunct of the Sorbonne. Rank’s psychological theories and the color theories of Nobel scientist William Ostwald would greatly influence the dazzling murals Hiler would later paint at the Aquatic Park Bathhouse building on the San Francisco waterfront.

A joint project of the City and the WPA, the Streamline Moderne building designed by city architect William Mooser, Jr. broke ground in 1936. Working for the WPA, Hiler was assigned to decorate the interior and exterior of the building and supervised a team of artists, artisans, and crafts workers hired by the Federal Art Project. Hiler’s motifs of fantastical underwater scenes used in his murals are also found in mosaics, terrazzo floors, and friezes throughout the 4-story building.

Color Wheel, Hiler ascribed a psychological significance to each color.

Color Wheel
Hiler ascribed a psychological significance to each color.
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Hiler brought everything he’d learned about color and psychology to his murals in the main lobby. But first he painted on the ceiling of the nearby lounge a 47-foot-color wheel divided into 30 colors and hues. Hiler renamed the room the “Prismatarium,” writing that it functions in relation to the world of color much as a planetarium does for the heavens.

Novelist Henry Miller, a contemporary of Hiler, wrote, “Hilaire lives and breathes color. He is color itself. Sometimes he’s a veritable aurora borealis.”

Just before the art was completed, the City leased the building to a pair of restauranteurs who renamed it “The Aquatic Park Casino” and installed garish-colored furniture among many other violations of Hiler’s design aesthetic. Hiler and all the artists walked off the job. Beniamino Bufano refused to allow his sculptures to be installed. Sargent Johnson, one of only two African-American artists working for the WPA in California, abandoned the 140-foot mosaic he was installing on the veranda. It remains unfinished to this day.

Starfish, Hiler Mural Detail

Starfish
Hiler Mural Detail
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

In a scathing letter to his supervisor, Hiler resigned just days before the park opened on January 22, 1939. He was not seen at the opening ceremonies.

Many of the artists found work at Treasure Island, site of the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, where Hiler produced two decorative maps of Pacific nations in the Pacific House. He then worked  for the Army in the Presidio as a color consultant on camouflage, taught briefly at Mills College, founded a school in Los Angeles, relocated it to Santa Fe, and eventually moved to New York City. Toward the end of his life he returned to Paris where he died in 1966.

Hiler painted on the ceiling of the room he named The Prismatarium

“Psychological color chart”
Hiler painted on the ceiling of the room he named The Prismatarium
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

The Aquatic Park building underwent extensive restoration between 2006 and 2009. Restorations of Hiler’s murals and Prismatarium ceiling were completed in 2010.  The building today serves as a maritime museum, the centerpiece of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

Painting Aquatic Park Mural, To save time Hiler began the work on canvas and carried it as far as possible before installation on the lobby walls.

Painting Aquatic Park Mural
To save time, Hiler began the work on canvas and carried it as far as possible before installing the murals on the lobby walls.
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Paint and Politics—the Life and Work of Victor Arnautoff
By Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934
The artist included this self portrait in his “City Life” mural.
Photo Credit: Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff was a prolific artist of public murals during the New Deal, many of which are still in place.

Born in Russia in 1896, Arnautoff was a cavalry officer in WWI and later in the White Siberian army during the Russian Civil War. Escaping into northeastern China, he married and his father-in-law paid for him to attend the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. His first public mural, in 1929, can be seen in the city’s Old Cathedral of the Holy Virgin.

Arnautoff and his family moved to Mexico where he worked as an assistant to the famed muralist Diego Rivera. Returning to San Francisco in 1931, Arnautoff gained attention by painting a large fresco mural on his studio wall. He then did several fresco panels at the Palo Alto Clinic that remain on view.

Painting the mural “City Life.”

Painting the mural “City Life.”
San Francisco’s Coit Tower, 1934
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

With the New Deal in 1933, federal funds became available for public art. In San Francisco, the Public Works of Art Project hired 25 artists to create murals at Coit Tower. Arnautoff, highly experienced in fresco technique, was designated technical coordinator of the project. His mural, City Life, completed in 1934, presents a vivid kaleidoscope of downtown San Francisco at a time of economic and social upheaval.

Arnautoff’s next New Deal commission, a large mural in the Protestant chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco, funded by the State Emergency Relief Administration, depicts historical vignettes and contemporary activities at the military base, including the Army’s supervision of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936

Arnautoff at work
George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Arnautoff’s political views moved to the left in the mid-1930s, and he sometimes incorporated social criticism into his art. His largest single New Deal commission was thirteen fresco panels on the life of George Washington, painted in 1936 at the newly built George Washington High School in San Francisco. Funded by the WPA’s Federal Art Project, the murals present a counter narrative to the high school history texts of the time: the panel on Mount Vernon emphasizes Washington’s dependence on slave labor, and that on the westward “march of the white race” (Arnautoff’s description) shows it taking place over the body of dead Indian.

He exhibited at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, the 1935 California Pacific Exposition, and the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

 

Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet

Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco
The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet
Photo Credit: Richard Evans

Between 1938 and 1942 Arnautoff completed five Treasury Section post office murals. Those in College Station and Linden, Texas, prominently featured African Americans, rarely depicted in public artworks. His post office murals can still be seen at Linden and at Pacific Grove and South San Francisco, California. Arnautoff’s mural for the Richmond, California, Post Office was recently discovered in a packing crate in the post office’s basement. It is being restored for exhibition in the Richmond Museum of History.

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950
Arnautoff painted this self-portrait opposing HR 9490, the McCarran Internal Security Act. The Act required Communist organizations to register with the U.S. Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board.
Photo Credit: With kind permission of INVA publishing house, Russia

In the 1950s, Arnautoff, while teaching at Stanford, was shunned for his leftist views and was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1963, after the death of his wife, he emigrated to the Soviet Union where he continued to paint and make prints and created three large public murals using mosaic tiles. He died in 1979.

Uncovering California’s New Deal Art

Catalogue from 1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

Catalogue
1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

A daring exhibition at the University of Santa Clara in 1976 began the rediscovery of a buried civilization then itself only forty years in the past.

“New Deal Art: California,” a six-month exhibition at the De Saisset Gallery, pulled out of storage surviving works of New Deal art while pointing to others long ignored in public spaces: a wealth of paintings, sculpture, photographs, and mosaics whose merit had been buried under the ascendant dominance of modernist abstraction after World War II.

The disinterest or actual contempt with which so much of the Art Establishment regarded the figurative art of the New Deal was not entirely accidental. It had much to do with the deliberate erasure of the New Deal ethos that had produced it, though few at that time were aware of it.

Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco

Coit Tower Mural
Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Much of the credit for the rediscovery of New Deal art belongs to Dr. Francis V. O’Connor who, in 1974, published Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s, written by those who worked for the WPA Federal Art Project, still an essential collection of source material. O’Connor served as a consultant for the De Saisset Gallery exhibition along with curators Lydia Modi Vitale and history professor Steven Gelber, who now lives in retirement in Santa Rosa, California. Gelber remembers the exhibition fondly and well.

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939
Catalogue Number 147

Dr. Gelber recalls today that the artists he interviewed all spoke of the art programs with something akin to love. Government patronage gave them security while enabling them to create art for a broad public rather than wealthy collectors, galleries, and corporate lobbies, as was so often the case when the federal art projects ended.

Two years in the making, the exhibition produced a richly illustrated catalogue containing an extensive inventory of New Deal public artworks throughout California. More important to those now researching New Deal art projects was a unique program of video documentation made possible by an NEH grant that enabled Gelber and Vitale to outfit a van with equipment with which they recorded surviving administrators and artists in their homes and studios. The Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. houses those interviews. Through them, those involved in the vast programs of government-sponsored art speak to us today.

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture, San Diego County Administration Building

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture
San Diego County Administtration Bldg

The art reproduced in the museum catalogue and in the February 4, 1976 issue of Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine demonstrates the impressive range of works that emerged through federal patronage.

A cast stone relief on the exterior of the WPA-built Berkeley Community Theatre, for example, depicts people of all races brought together through acts of creation—an ideal that seemed attainable when government actively supported the arts.

Book Review: Kentucky By Design: The Decorative Arts and American Culture, ed. Andrew Kelly, 328 pp

Kentucky by DesignWhat does a kitchen table have to do with American exceptionalism? Between 1936 and 1942, the Federal Art Project (FAP) sent four hundred artists into 36 states to paint the objects comprising everyday life in a large, diverse nation. They returned with 18,257 watercolors of furniture, clothing, ceramics, quilts, and more, slated for reproduction in the Index of American Design, a collection illustrating uniquely American craft and utility. The Index was to be distributed to libraries and schools as an object lesson in patriotism. But the Index was never published, as funds were diverted to the war effort.

Focusing on one state, Kentucky By Design: The Decorative Arts and American Culture is the first attempt to recover any part of this abandoned effort. Most of the handmade objects showcased in this large format book appear to have been spun, hewn, stitched, or constructed in the mid-nineteenth century, but some, like a tin lantern, hearken back to the late eighteenth-century.

A tin lantern.

Kentucky by Design
A tin lantern.

Edited by Andrew Kelly, a Helena Rubinstein Fellow of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Kentucky By Design displays and contextualizes these artworks and their makers. We get a brief history of the envisioned New Deal project; introductory essays on regionalism, folk art, and the influence of Shaker crafts on modernist aesthetics; beautiful lithographs of the watercolors; and photographs of the objects and the people who used them. Scholarly contributors provide aesthetic details and social context, and there are contemporaneous interviews with FAP officials pivotal to the project.

Kentucky’s collection of the art of the ordinary is exemplar of a national project that was dedicated to building national pride in the dignity of labor and American craftsmanship—although African Americans are underrepresented, as they were in the Index in general. As such, Kentucky By Design clues us in to both the spirit of the era and its shadow.

Gabriel Milner is the project manager for the Living New Deal Project and a cultural historian of the United States.

New Documentary on WPA Artist, Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong
“Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death.”

A film honoring the 105–year old artist Tyrus Wong recently premiered at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Tyrus attended! “Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death,” says Tyrus in the just released film.

From his early artistic work with Works Progress Administration (WPA) Tyrus went on to become the creative force behind the Walt Disney film, Bambi, and later, the classic Rebel Without a Cause. He designed sets and storyboards for Hollywood studios. His artistic work spanned greeting cards and popular pottery designs and, later in life, intricate and colorful Chinese kites. He once exhibited with Picasso.

Directed by Pamela Tom, the film begins with Tyrus’s emigration from China at age 9—he never saw his mother again. When he arrived in the U.S. he was detained for months at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay.

Support from his father enabled Tyrus to pursue his talent. Teachers at the well-known Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles further encouraged him, as did other WPA artists like Benji Okubo and Hideo Date. Tyrus produced watercolors, lithographs and murals for the Federal Art Project. As he tells it, his success was based on “luck and hard work.” His wife, Ruth, and their three daughters, also featured in the film, attest to Tyrus working late into the night.

Tyrus’s dedication to his art and soulful approach to life and family shine through in the film. His story is another example of a young artist nurtured by the WPA at critical period in their career. Watch for a screening in your area – http://tyruswongthemovie.com/screenings/.